- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

DENVER | Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are heading back to the NBA Finals after dispatching the pesky Denver Nuggets with a 119-92 victory in Game 6 on Friday night.

Bryant - who had 35 points and 10 assists - got plenty of scoring help from Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as the Lakers shot 57.3 percent from the field to avoid having to play a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals back at the Staples Center.

They will finally get some much-needed rest after playing every other day for a grueling two weeks.

These Lakers, who are headed to their record 30th NBA Finals and seeking their 15th title, are a more grizzled group - but also more bruised and battered - than the one that fell to Boston in the finals last year.

“Now we’re in a place where we didn’t get the job accomplished last year,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, we will this time.”

Instead of cruising through the West this time, the Lakers survived an arduous seven-game semifinal series against Houston and a physical test against Denver.

The Lakers will face either Orlando or Cleveland in the finals. The Magic lead 3-2 and can clinch the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night at home in Game 6 and prevent the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James final that has basketball fans and corporate sponsors atwitter.

The finals begin Thursday, at Los Angeles if Orlando wins or at Cleveland if the Cavaliers prevail.

Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points and J.R. Smith added 24, but Denver trailed for all but a few seconds and never mounted a serious charge after halftime, although it kept hitting 3-pointers.

This was the Nuggets’ eighth consecutive loss in a playoff elimination game.

Odom and Gasol both scored 20 points, Ariza had 17, and the Lakers made all 24 of their free throws.

The Lakers might very well have been swept by the energetic Nuggets if veterans Anthony Carter and Kenyon Martin hadn’t botched inbounds passes in the final seconds of Games 1 and 3, respectively.

Bryant didn’t wait for the fourth quarter Friday night to give the Nuggets, who had posted eight postseason blowouts, a taste of their own medicine.

He scored 11 points in a decisive 21-7 run that gave the Lakers a 53-40 halftime lead, took the buzz out of Pepsi Center and the air out of the Nuggets.

Bryant started his run with two free throws after a questionable whistle on Martin, then hit a jumper over Smith. After Ariza’s 3-pointer, Bryant made baskets over Anthony from the left and right corners on the Lakers’ next two possessions, then capped the run with a dagger - a 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left following Gasol’s offensive rebound.

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